Parenting: An Art, Not a Science…

Art not science

It would be silly to say that there is only one “best way” to make a piece of art. There are a plethora of masterpieces, each one different from the other, and each beautiful in its own right. I think it’s just as silly to say that there is only one “best way” of parenting or running a family. Each human being is a masterpiece of God’s creation, and he has allowed parents to play a role in uncovering the beauty of his creation by caring for, educating and, above all, loving their children.

Expectations

So many blogs, articles, studies, essays, reports, interviews, etc. promote certain theories of parenting. Everything from parenting styles to childhood milestones to discipline strategies to whether or not moms should use Pinterest or social networking comes under the microscope. Expectation after expectation after expectation. The basic premise is that if you meet all these expectations, which sometimes even specify how many times you should breastfeed during the day/night, or how long your child is allowed to cry, you are a “good” mother.  If not, you aren’t. If your child meets the expected milestones for smiling, walking or touching his toes, he is healthy, normal and average.  And if not? Draw your own conclusions…

I enjoy reading articles and hearing different opinions. I use some of the ideas I find… but I mix and match. I combine things I read from here and there, and, ultimately, I fall back on my own instinct. There are things I did with my first that I haven’t with my second, and vice versa – not because I’ve changed my thoughts on parenthood, but simply because I think that each child is different. Some things that work very well with one might not with another. They have different abilities, different wants and different needs, and no website or professional analysis can tell me what those are. My maternal instinct can. That’s why I think some of the media out there on parenting is detrimental. When so many expectations are presented, it could be easy for parents to get caught up in quantifying “good parenting” by trying to live up to the “best” parenting theories, sometimes at the expense of discovering, listening to and following their own God-given parental instinct.

Successful parenting is not reflected in how soon a baby is potty trained, or how many hours of individual attention each parent has with the child. It is reflected in the greatest beauty of God’s creation: the child. The best parenting method is the one that helps the child flourish and grow into a life that abounds with love, joy, beauty and unending discovery. There is no formula to achieving this. There are as many “right” ways of parenting as there are families, and even more, because even within a family, every child’s has different needs and responds differently. Attachment parenting may work for some, but not all. I know our eldest son’s personality would have been stifled had we followed that theory with all its ins and outs. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not at all against closeness with babies, and our youngest son took a lot of it. But each child is different, and I think the objective should be to meet the needs of the child, not to fulfill a set of expectations under the name of “attachment parenting” or any other theory. One baby might need one hundred hugs a day, and another only 20. It’s not the number that matters, but that each child is hugged whenever they need it, and no child is better or worse for wanting it more or less.

Ultimately, a child is fulfilled if they feel secure, confident and loved. Parents can take advice and get ideas from different sources, but the fulfillment the child needs comes from a personal relationship with their parents. Only the parents, through communication with the child, combined with God-given grace and inspiration, can best know how to raise each little one and what they need in each moment.

What’s Best for My Family Right Now?

I am not a relativist. I do believe in right and wrong, and I believe that some things are always right and always wrong. However, when it comes to parenting, I believe that many things can be left to the discretion of each family. Certain principles and values should always be kept in mind, but there are often various legitimate ways for families to govern themselves while still upholding Christian principles and family values.

I think we need to look less at what we do and more at why we do it, whether there is a good reason for it… I’ll always remember a story a good priest friend used to tell about a little girl who asked her mother why she always cut a ham in half and cooked each half in a separate pan. The mother said it was the best way to cook ham – her own mother had taught her. When the little girl asked her grandmother why ham should be split in half and cooked in two pans, the grandmother laughed and said, “Oh – I used to do it that way because the pan I had wasn’t big enough for the whole ham, so I had to use two.” In other words, there was no reason. The grandmother had cooked the ham in two pans because that was best for her, but it didn’t mean that every generation thereafter had to do the same.

There’s more than one way to cook a ham… and there’s more than one way to raise a child or run a family. When parents face decisions, I don’t think the real question should be “What’s the right or best way of doing this?” but “What’s best for our family right now?” This question puts aside social expectations and centers on what will be most fulfilling for the family. It might mean homeschooling for a while and later sending kids to school. It might mean a stay-at-home mom one year and a stay-at-home dad the next. If every decision is made keeping the best interest of the entire family in mind, everyone will be happy – or at least as happy as we can get in this life. There is no one formula that guarantees happy children. Love is the main ingredient for happiness, and love seeks to meet the needs of each individual. Since each family is made up of a unique combination of individuals, that love will look very different from family to family, and even from year to year within a family.

I can testify to this from my own family’s experience. Over the last few years, we’ve had different arrangements. When Charbel was first born, my husband became a stay-at-home dad, while I continued teaching. For the past year, we’ve both been working: we work at the same school and are able to bring the kids with us, so we haven’t had to make the choice many parents face regarding either having to stay home or having to send the kids off to a nursery. My husband and I put a lot of thought and worry into both decisions, not wanting to choose something that we would later regret. But, in both moments, we clearly saw that our choice was what would be best for our family in that moment, and we weren’t disappointed. We may have lost sleep over the parenting decisions we’ve had to make, but our kids sure haven’t – they have been perfectly happy. We are our hardest judges – I’ve reached the conclusion that our kids are often easier to please than we are, because they don’t know every expectation in the book, so they aren’t afraid of not living up to something. As long as they feel secure because of our presence and our overwhelming love for them, they are perfectly happy and content, and we should be too…

Conclusion

Just a final thought about the danger of too many external expectations and attempts to quantify or qualify “good parenting”… These norms can too easily take our eyes off what might be best for our own family and circumstances because they keep us so busy comparing ourselves with others. I’ve heard of parents that send their kids to school and feel guilty – what if they aren’t protecting them enough? I also know homeschooling parents that have doubts of their own – are their children missing out on a social life or other opportunities? Some of my friends that use Pinterest, blogs and social networks wonder if they’re wasting too much time that could better be spent doing “productive” things. At the same time, I have other friends that feel their home isn’t “good enough” because they don’t have things to “show off” on the web. When we look at all the expectations placed on parents and families today, everyone has something to feel guilty about, whether it’s not spending enough time with the kids, not using the perfect disciplinary methods, not having a showcase home, relying on readymade food or not “going green” enough.

But where does all this competition lead? Is the “perfect” family really any more perfect? Or are they just constantly stressed out? All these expectations can easily distract us from what’s really important – what our family needs. Your family might be much better off from a simple hug than an all natural diet…

The number one difficulty with comparing a family against a set of expectations or social norms is that it presumes that we know what a “perfect” family is. It treats being a family like a science. But the family is a work of art, and each one is an individual masterpiece – we can’t know what it should look like until it’s done. Then, we can marvel at the work of God the variety of different colors and techniques he has used in all the families and admire how all of them can be so different, yet so beautiful.

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